One of my readers, Wortmanberbger, responded one of my previous blogs on White Fragility with the following :
Fine, but there is the danger of an ideologically distorting influence inherent in the phrase “white privilege”, which tends to frame these discussions. Whites are not privileged. Black people are oppressed, and white people are not, generally speaking, not to the same extent, not necessarily for the same reasons, although white people are also oppressed if they are poor or occupy an economically precarious position. This should not be forgotten and implicates the unwholesome influence of identity politics, which is beyond this comment. The terminology should be explicitly political: that of rights (the works: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness) being violated in the case of blacks, not privileges being had in the case of whites. This linguistic orientation is not mere semantics. “White privilege” subtly tends to suggest that the people at a higher social position should be brought down, instead of that the people at a lower social position should be raised up, taking their equality for granted. It is this aspect of the “discussion about race” that, I would argue, makes white people like me uncomfortable or not inclined to enter this constricting discourse frame.
Here is my response that evolved over time:
Thanks for your thoughtful response, and for giving me your permission to post it in a blog. I use it here because I think it is emblematic of the arguments against the concept of white privilege.
I use the term white privilege very intentionally — not for distorting influence, but to describe the truth of our social reality. You say that: ” Whites are not privileged. Black people are oppressed, and white people are not, generally speaking, not to the same extent, not necessarily for the same reasons, although white people are also oppressed if they are poor or occupy an economically precarious position.” Black folks and other people of color (POC) are oppressed by institutions in the US (and around the world), and that oppression boosts white people up. The two are intricately bound together — white people are advantaged economically, socially, and politically as a direct result of disadvantaging people of color.
Racism is different from personal disadvantage because it happens at both an individual and collective level. Everyone has some form of personal disadvantage, regardless of race, and some people have more personal disadvantages than others. Individual white people may have terribly difficult lives and some people (parents, siblings, friends, partners, or dates) may treat them horribly, but we white people are still the social default in institutions.
As an example, I am considered “too fat” by the larger culture (for what, they do not specify – wear a bikini I suppose), overweight certainly and possibly even obese depending on which measurement scale you use. The social stigma associated with my weight has been an impediment to me socially, romantically/sexually, and to my self-esteem. Pretty much anyone who is overweight in the US experiences some kind of stigma for their excess body fat at some point. My white privilege buffers me from some of the negative impacts of that stigma and discrimination, in a number of ways: 1) doctors provide me better quality care and take me more seriously as an educated white consumer, when I ask them questions they respond to me and do not generally talk down to me; 2) if a doctor is inappropriate with me about my weight – shaming instead of simply recommending (yet again) that I lose weight lest I give myself diabetes – then I can go to a different doctor and expect a different outcome, and I can keep looking for appropriate and sensitive care because I can assume that I am not being discriminated against because of my race; 3) if I am fat and “slovenly” or “lazy” or whatever other negative things people associate with fatness then it is just me, I do not have to bear the burden of being an example of how all of “my people” (the white people) are lazy, untrustworthy, fat, slovenly, or whatever – I am just me, not a stand-in for my whole race because white people are allowed individuality on a personal level; 4) if I decide I want to exercise more to lose weight then I am more likely to be able to live in an area where I can safely walk outside, and even run without fear of police harassment; and most importantly 5) because society is designed for my comfort and I do not feel under constant attack for my race, my stress level is lower than it usually is for people of color, which means my body produces less cortisol, and I am healthier even if I am rounder. So while I am disadvantaged by fatness, a person of color is disadvantaged by institutionalized racism and fatness – my white privilege buffers me from the impacts of institutional discrimination that make the personal negative outcomes so much worse.
In the United States, we must talk about and name white privilege because it is a systematic and race-based system of favoritism: Structural advantages built in to the system have helped white people and we often don’t even know it. Being excluded from these privileges makes life much more difficult for POC. This has given white people enhanced life chances and better job opportunities, and myriad daily comforts such as the relative freedom from surveillance by security or differential treatment by police. Whites don’t notice our privileges, so it is easier to both take credit for our own successes and be oblivious to the impact of racism on others.
Today white privilege expresses in residential segregation, vast wealth disparities, educational segregation, higher levels of unemployment among people of color, and significant racially based disparities in infant and maternal mortality, life expectancy, quality of health care, and simply the stress of dealing with racism and micro-aggressions all the time, which leads to higher rates of heart disease and stress-related illnesses (and contributes to lower life expectancy).
In another blog soon, I will talk about what white people can do to face white privilege and how we can be better allies to people of color.